Myron Medcalf
See more of the story

It's a harrowing feeling to sit near that balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and think about the day — April 4, 1968 — when our greatest civil rights leader was cut down by an assassin's bullet on a trip to support sanitation workers on strike.

On Monday, however, people across this country will invent a version of Martin Luther King Jr. on the day he is to be acknowledged and celebrated. They will post random quotes, without context, that will get likes on social media. They will tout his stance on nonviolence without understanding why he demanded as much from those fighting for equality. They will replay his "I Have a Dream" speech and dismiss the confrontational diatribes you won't hear at your local Martin Luther King Jr. celebratory brunch.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, people will not tell the truth about Martin Luther King Jr.

The man who died on that balcony in Memphis was a human being beset by doubts and concerns about the future of the civil rights movement. The man who died on that balcony was changing and beginning to embrace a universal Poor People's Campaign — he recruited poor whites, too — that cited capitalism and the hoarding of resources as a threat to all. The man who died on that balcony, if you believe the accounts of those close to him, had wrestled with depression and seemed to know he would die soon. As King pursued equality, America nearly broke him.

Let's tell that story about Martin Luther King Jr.

If you're going to quote his messages, do not edit them so they're easier for folks to consider.

Yes, King rebuked racists. But he also feared those who claimed to back him. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963), he responded to white clergymen who had grown weary of his demonstrations and demands for equality. In that letter, King said he had been "gravely disappointed with the white moderate" who is "more devoted to 'order' than 'justice.'"

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will," he said in the letter, in which he points to "lukewarm" white supporters.

We've witnessed that battle here in Minnesota. Some white Minnesotans who had Black Lives Matter signs on their front lawns after George Floyd's murder didn't have an appetite for a conversation about defunding the police. King wrestled with the same wavering support from those in positions of power and influence.

He was anxious about that shift because he knew this country had reached its boiling point. While he demanded nonviolence in demonstrations across the country, he also attached a warning to those who did not understand its limits. In a 1962 telegram to President John F. Kennedy about recent demonstrations in Albany, Ga., King wrote that he could not guarantee nonviolence "if the federal government does not take decisive action. … If Negroes are tempted to turn to retaliatory violence, we shall see a dark night of rioting all over the South."

King's belief in nonviolence was tied to his reverence for Socrates and Gandhi. To simply cite nonviolence as King's most significant principle, however, is misguided. That cute and cuddly take on King's ideas ignores the key reason he demanded nonviolence among demonstrators: He knew America would have killed scores of Black folks if they had chosen violence. But at the end of his life, he acknowledged nonviolence had not led to the change he sought.

"Nonviolence was a creative doctrine in the South because it check-mated the rabid segregationists who were thirsting for an opportunity to physically crush Negroes," King once wrote.

In the years that preceded his death, King felt isolated. He had joined the fight to end the Vietnam War and lost the support of some white and Black supporters who believed he should avoid the issue.

At the same time, the civil rights movement was waning, which affected him. Per the "King in the Wilderness" documentary, one of King's doctors thought he should consider a psychological evaluation. But, his colleague said, they knew the FBI would find out and use the info to continue its assault on King's life and specifically his marriage.

King's marital challenges are well-documented. Years before his death, he said it was difficult to be the family man he aspired to be while also pursuing equality.

He had lost so much by then but kept fighting.

As it appeared his civil rights push was nearing its end, he launched the Poor People's Campaign. His goal was to unite Americans of all backgrounds in a fight against poverty.

He assembled meetings with leaders who were Hispanic, Indigenous, Asian and white and plotted a joint effort to address America's wealth gap. "If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell," King told a gathering of sanitation workers on strike in Memphis.

Most know about King's rousing "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, which was delivered to thousands at a church named Mason Temple the night before he was assassinated. But he'd also spoken to local sanitation workers days before that speech.

That's where he admitted the toll of his fight.

"Having to take so much abuse and criticism, sometimes from my own people, sometimes I feel discouraged," he said in Memphis two weeks before he was killed in the same city. "Having to go to bed so often frustrated with the chilly winds of adversity about to stagger me, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work is in vain."

On Monday, I hope you all will discuss that Martin Luther King Jr. and not the mythical one this country has created.

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online. E-mail:
Twitter: @MedcalfByESPN